What Happened at The End of Martha is Dead?
I should give a warning upfront: This editorial is heavy. I’m going to be talking about grief, trauma, violence, and all sorts of other squicky and uncomfortable things. The thing is, you can’t much have a conversation about Martha is Dead without talking about the underlying theme of trauma. If you’ve experienced trauma, and don’t want to read this: Please don’t. I’m not at all saying that Martha is Dead is a game you shouldn’t play. You absolutely should. It just has themes that may make some people uncomfortable, and I’d never want you to feel uncomfortable reading something I wrote. I know I normally reserve this Thursday spot for something funny and lighthearted, but I feel like Martha is Dead is due more than a review. I want to touch on its themes, and how they made me feel. So if you’re still in for this, let’s go.
In Martha is Dead, you play as Martha…kind of. In the opening moments of the game, Martha actually dies. You play the role of her sister, Giulia. Giulia is the unfavored child, shunned by her mother and doted on by her father. She finds Martha’s lifeless body floating in a pond near their house. When her mother finds Giulia cradling Martha’s dead body, she immediately assumes the lesser identical twin has died. Martha was deaf, and Giulia has to take on her disabilities as she was now fully committed to being Martha. This is a shocking beginning to the game. Set against the backdrop of 1944 Italy, the death of Martha is suspected to have been an assassination, seeing as how Martha and Giulia’s father is a high-ranking German officer. ‘
Martha is Dead immediately sets you up in an unwinnable situation. Giulia is already suffering from delusions and paranoia, and the added stress of becoming Martha puts her into a downward spiral. She is already secluded, with a lack of social interaction. Her parents now believe she is Martha, and thus she no longer has anyone to talk to. She is left entirely to her thoughts. There is no therapist, no listening ear, and no path towards getting better. You’re forced to experience Giulia’s deteriorating mental state with no buffer. She is profoundly ill, and the guilt and shame are tearing her apart. You dream of stealing Martha’s life, culminating in a scene where you cut her face off with a locket kept around your neck.
The world today is not safe. There is a war raging in Ukraine. Martha is Dead has the dubious honor of being perfectly prescient without meaning to at all. As Giulia tries to solve Martha’s murder, she begins consulting with The White Lady; the spirit of a drowned bride. You’re once again forced to wonder if what you’re seeing is genuinely happening, or if it is all in Giulia’s head. The game plays with the idea that none of it could be happening. There are scenes so graphic and distressing that you think they have to be in Giulia’s head until they’re commented on by other characters. It is a rough game. I could only play in thirty-minute bursts as more than that and I would run into one too many revelations that would leave my head spinning and my soul hurting. I’m not using hyperbole. It is uncomfortable.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SURE
So in the end, you’re left not knowing really what is going on. You can grasp at it, but the truth of the matter is some ethereal thing. The gist of it is maybe none of it happened. It could have been imagined by Giulia, who is shown to have been in an asylum the whole time. The other theory I have is that Martha never existed. A harsh cane-beating that occurred when Giulia was a child split her already fractured psyche and created “Martha”; a sister who was mute and deaf and could absorb any punishment Giulia was meant to receive. Giulia continued to use Martha as a way to lessen her interaction with the traumas at home until she couldn’t. After the “death” of Martha she begins to blame her mother, who she confronts, shoots, and then dismembers. Her father is later killed after being accused of treason by his fellow soldiers.
Giulia is spending the entire game building a life and death for someone who isn’t real. Isn’t real to us, the player, but very real to her. Giulia is a child of war and strife, and her mind has suffered for it. There are a few different theories about what exactly happened and didn’t happen in Martha is Dead. Giulia might have made literally everything up. She is shown sitting in an asylum, telling her story, that might not even have happened. It’s possible that she is using the entire fabricated family history to shield herself from the very real horrors of World War 2. Her face is covered in scars in the very first scene of the game. These scars support both theories: A vicious beating, or wounds from war. Martha is dead keeps you guessing. There is a third theory that Giulia actually killed Martha out of jealousy, after she finds out she’s pregnant. I won’t even get into the womb cutting scene, but it is a theory to consider.
A lot of games try to pull the “actually you were the bad one” card all the time, but I firmly believe that Martha is Dead doesn’t have an antagonist. It doesn’t want you to root against a bad guy. The “bad guys” as it were, are an unseen force in Giulia’s head. If you were forced to pick out the bad guy in this situation it would be mental illness full-stop. There never was a Lady in White or a Martha. There was just Giulia, inside her head, alone. It’s chilling to think that a brain can short circuit to such a stark degree but it’s understandable. As someone who has mental health issues myself, it’s scarily easy to see how something like this could happen. I encourage you to check out the game. Martha is Dead is one of the most gripping portrayals of profound mental illness I’ve ever experienced. It is not comfortable. There is no happy ending. There is just suffering. You can pick it up HERE.